Jazz night at the opera (and other liberating acts of 2021)
In 2021, Terence Blanchard and Wayne Shorter realized long-held dreams: the celebrated musicians both premiered operas. These are great stories that represent overdue opportunity and a fresh aesthetic context for Black composers steeped in and known for jazz, whose work blends composition and improvisation. But more than that, these projects further crumbled walls that have long separated musical genres and communities.
Blanchard's opera, Fire Shut Up in My Bones, which opened the Met Opera's season on September 27, was historic by its placement—the first presentation of a work by a Black composer in that institution's 138-year history. In setting this story—of trauma, acceptance and resilience, concerning a Black man coming of age in a rural Louisiana town—Blanchard marshalled the same compassion and sense of social purpose coursing through his Grammy-winning work as a jazz trumpeter and bandleader. He tucked a jazz-ensemble rhythm section within the Met orchestra, and encouraged the singers to honor the church-music and R&B inflections they grew up with. Act III opened with a fraternity step routine, an audacious display of Black unity, joy and excellence that both rocked the house and claimed the space on his own terms.
With ...(Iphigenia), Shorter, widely considered jazz's greatest living composer and among its defining saxophonists and bandleaders, realized an ambition he'd held since his days as a teenage music student: to compose an opera. Shorter, now 88, based his new work on Iphigenia at Aulis, the last thing the Greek dramatist Euripides wrote before his death. The opera is meant as disruptive: Its libretto, by esperanza spalding, questions cycles of needless violence and the place of women as passive victims, in myth and in opera. Musically, Shorter extends an arc of his work that has grown ever more daring and abstract during the past 20 years, frequently involving chamber orchestras. This new piece also upends ideas about operatic form; by Act III, the members of Shorter's long-standing quartet urge the orchestra and singers into a wondrously unbound musical space. Shorter once told me, "There is no such thing as a beginning and no such thing as an end." He means it. His opera is marvelously mutable. Following a November preview in Boston, a December Kennedy Center premiere included a brand-new musical coda, the result of 21 pages of material Shorter had just sent along.
This year was dotted with music from Black composers that tore down walls. Autoschediasms, created and conducted by Tyshawn Sorey, was a master-class in real-time collaboration with a new-music ensemble, first arriving in 2020 via Alarm Will Sound's "Video Chat Variations" series; it holds up just as well on the August-issued double album. Courtney Bryan's Requiem, composed before the pandemic for the vocal quartet Quince Ensemble and members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and planned for 2020, got its premiere via streaming instead in June. The piece draws upon wide-ranging death rituals, including the jazz funerals of her hometown, New Orleans, and "turned out to be a response to our times," Bryan says.
We need this music. Did we ever need those walls?